Categories: Moon

There’s Water On the Moon’s Surface, But Interior Could Be Dry

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With all the recent news of water on the Moon, a new paper published today in the journal Science may offer a surprise – or it may bring us back to previous assumptions about the Moon. A new analysis of eleven lunar samples from the Apollo missions by Zachary Sharp from the University of New Mexico and his colleagues indicates that when the Moon formed, its interior was essentially dry. While the recent findings of ubiquitous water and hydroxyl on the surface as well as water ice in the lunar poles are not challenged by this new finding, it does dispute — somewhat — two other recent papers that proposed a wetter lunar interior than previously thought. “The recent LCROSS findings were of water on the lunar surface due to cometary impacts, and the ice is from the comets themselves,” Sharp told Universe Today. “We are talking about water that was present in the molten early Moon 4.5 billion years ago.”

The accepted theory of how the Moon formed is that a Mars-sized body slammed into our early Earth, creating a big disk of debris that would ultimately form into the Moon.

Although planetary scientists are still refining models of the Moon’s formation, there is much to suggest a dry Moon. Any water would have been vaporized by the high temperatures generated by the impact and cataclysm that followed, and vapor would have escaped into space. The assumption is that the only way there could be water in the Moon’s interior if is the impactor was especially water-rich, and also if the Moon solidified quickly, which is considered unlikely.

But earlier this year, Francis McCubbin and his team from the Carnegie Institution for Science released their findings of a surprisingly high abundance of water molecules — as high as several thousand parts per million — bound to phosphate minerals within volcanic lunar rocks, which would have formed well beneath the lunar surface and date back several billion years.

Additionally, in 2008, Alberto Saal of Brown University and colleagues found a slightly lower abundance of water in the lunar mantle, but it was significantly higher than the previous estimate of 1 part per billion.
These two findings have been pushing lunar scientists to find possible alternative explanations for the Moon’s formation to account for all the water.

But now, Sharp and his team studied a wide range of lunar basalts and measured the composition of chlorine isotopes. Using gas source mass spectrometry they found a wide range of chlorine isotopes contained in the samples which are 25 times greater than what is found in rocks and minerals from Earth and from meteorites.
Chlorine is very hydrophilic, or attracted to water, and is an extremely sensitive indicator of hydrogen levels. Sharp and his team say that, if lunar rocks had initial hydrogen contents anywhere close to those of terrestrial rocks, then the fractionation of chlorine into so many different isotopes would never have happened on the Moon. Because of this Sharp and his colleagues say their results suggest a very dry interior of the Moon.

Sharp proposes that Saal and McCubbin’s calculations of high hydrogen contents in some lunar samples are not typical, and perhaps those samples are the product of certain igneous processes that resulted in their “extremely volatile enrichment.” They do not, however, represent the high and variable isotopic chlorine values reported in the majority of lunar rocks, Sharp said.

Still, there could be a compromise between the varied findings. “There are uncertainties that one has to take into account when doing this type of study, ” Sharp told Universe Today, “and if we take the low estimates of Saal and McCubbin’s papers, they are not so different from our findings.”

But the discrepancies, however small, show that perhaps we can’t make generalizations about the entire Moon from limited samples.

“We have not yet looked for water in a wide range of lunar samples,” said Jeff Taylor from the University of Hawaii, who was not involved in any of the aforementioned studies. “It is quite possible that the initial differentiation of the Moon and subsequent processes such as mantle overturn concentrated whatever water the Moon had into certain areas. Until we measure more samples, including samples from the farside (represented by many of the lunar meteorites and eventually by sample-return missions), we will not know for sure how much water is in the bulk Moon.”

In combination, all the recent studies of the lunar surface show there is likely a complex chemistry on the Moon that we have yet to understand.

“In other words,” said Taylor, “we need more work!”

Source: Science News

Earlier Papers:

Nominally hydrous magmatism on the Moon by Francis McCubbin et al., 2010.

Volatile content of lunar volcanic glasses and the presence of water in the Moon’s interior, Alberto Saal et al. Nature.

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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